Why thought experiments and counterfactuals? Because consequences matter

–One obstacle to identifying root causes of any event is the inability to uncover what counterfactual accidents and disasters had been avoided by those accidents and disasters that actually did happen.

Consider two questions: (1) “Would one choose to be born if beforehand one were able to see all possible accidents and disasters that could befall one?” and (2) “Would one choose to be unborn if at the end of one’s life, one were able to see all accidents and disasters that would have befallen, had not he or she lived the accidental life lived?”

For me, the questions are not equivalent because the latter (#2) is more about the counterfactual “would” than (#1), which is more open to possibilities of “could”. This matters because contemporary risk assessment and management are about the “could” of probabilities, uncertainties and unknowns when the “would” of counterfactuals appear incorrigibly more difficult to ascertain.

–Yet, policy analysts can’t avoid thought experiments and counterfactuals, as the latter also address head-on the most troublesome part of a policy analysis–isolating the consequences of a decision. When it comes to triangulating on consequences policy types need all the help they can.

Two examples here:

  • When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted. (Note the counterfactual is a twofold would. Sociologist, Raymond Aron, asked critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)
  • It is little recorded that some early English colonists to America either ran away to live with Native Americans or refused to return from captivity when given the chance. One early writer put it that these reluctant colonists enjoyed the “most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail upon us”. Famously, an early French Jesuit found Native American customs “afforded me illumination the more easily to understand and explain several matters found in ancient authors”.

Just imagine the entire lot of colonists ran away to live with Native Americans, once realizing both that better practices had already been found and that colonization was altogether a ghastly prospect by comparison. Now that’s a counterfactual about the opportunity costs to coordination!

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